Tweeting In The Courtroom? No Thanks

Twitter, for those of you who do not yet know this, is a social networking device that permits folks to send and receive brief, instantaneous messages of no more than 140 characters. You can send and receive messages from a computer, a cell phone or another electronic device, such as an Ipad. You can "tweet" anywhere an electronic signal is available, including a courtroom: the practice is known as "tweeting." Does Twitter belong in a courtroom?

Almost certainly not, I say. Reports from the trial of State v. Steven Hayes demonstrate why.

The invasion of the Petit home in Cheshire during the summer of 2007 is by now a legendary event ranking just behind Eve's beguilement of Adam or the Romans' rape of the Sabine women. People can't get enough of the case. Reporters line up for limited seats outside the courthouse as early as 5:30 a.m. News trucks line the streets outside the courthouse. We gasp in horror over the crimes and then scream "more, more" to those who report on it. We love to hate the what is reported.
The press has been obliging: Reporters have been sitting in the courtroom tweeting their fingers to the bone about events at trial. Led by The Hartford Courant's Helen Ubinas, who tweets under the dramatic nom de tweet NotesfromHeL, a host of reporters are providing up to the minute tweeting about the trial.

These verbal snapshots of trial are coveted by folks with a need to know what happens the very moment it occurs. But what, really, is being reported, and what do the reporters think they are doing pecking away at tiny keyboards during trial?

Ms. Ubinas and Rachel Guerra, a New Haven television reporter, are honest about what tweeting is: it as an adjunct to the world of conventional print and television reporting. "Immediacy is great," Ms. Ubinas told an interviewer recently. "Engaging readers is key to our survival." Ms. Guerra expressed a similar thought in the same interview. Tweeting "is a great opportunity for news outlets to create synergy between their television product and the online world." The isolated facts tweeted from a courtroom are part reporting, part marketing.

But reporting isolated facts has little value. Indeed, the practice of tweeting carries the danger of distraction. In the Hayes case, reporters have tweeted about Dr. William Petit Jr.'s every movement. We learn that he touches his head, he leans over, he sighs in response to testimony. In the race to show how sensitive they can be in broadcasting details about the Cheshire home invasion, reporters have deified Dr. Petit.

Courtrooms are a complex place. I wonder what sort of social chemistry is created in a courtroom when reporters focus on a victim and spend their time studying him and reporting his every move. Researchers in group dynamics are well aware of the unspoken but real social cues that convey meaning to strangers in a group. Can it be said with confidence that the jury in the Hayes' case have not been influenced by the fact that one of the state's key witnesses has been given the Michael Jackson treatment?

We do not permit television or radio in courtrooms in order to avoid distraction. We worry about how these media might distort the truth-finding process. By barring these media, we deprive the public of information. But at least information from radio or television is accurate and unfiltered. Why ban radio but permit live tweeting?

At one point in the Hayes trial the jury reported it could not hear the evidence over the clacking of keyboards. Why is it that in some courtrooms folks are required to turn off cell phones, but in this courtroom folks are encouraged to use them, so long as it is for the purpose of sending tweets. A distraction by any other name is a distraction.

Tweeting during trial is a dumb idea. If we're going to provide contemporaneous information, then permit an unobtrusive radio microphone to broadcast the sounds. Television cameras, twitting groupies, and clacking keyboards are as offensive as a sandwich board in the courtroom. Let the media hawks its product by something other than 140 word snippets cranked out at break neck speed while trial is in session.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.


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